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Archive for the ‘Fontwell’ Category

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the new project, which I will keep under my hat until I know that my sponsor is willing to give it the official go-ahead.  In anticipation of that I’ve already acquired plenty of material.  In the past I’ve been apt to start researching a book before full and final authorisation to proceed – I can’t help myself.  It’s the same again now.  I mentioned it to a friend at Brighton races the other day, who promptly told Matt Chapman, who was on duty there for Sky Sports Racing.  I had to tell him it was still premature to broadcast it, but he was fine with that and said we could do it another time.

I doubt if it’ll be the next Brighton meeting, which is on Tuesday week after Windsor’s final Monday evening meeting of the season.  Matt often appears at them, so I’d be surprised if he did Brighton the next day.   Coincidentally, I had called in at Windsor a few days earlier, hoping they could find some copies of the remaining stock of my book marking its 150th anniversary in 2016.  I was down to my last few, but they’ve given me a decent number.  I hope I will be able to sell a few more if and when Rupert invites me onto this bookstall again.  I could do with some more Fontwells and I am waiting to hear if the staff there can find some for me.

We are on the verge of moving house and this is going to be a significant distraction in the weeks ahead.  Huge numbers of books need to be shifted and there is talk from Mrs B about having custom-made bookshelves in the new abode.  It has three storeys but I’m not sure that’ll be enough.

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I’ve just come back from two long days at Ascot on Rupert’s bookstall.  Key rings and fridge magnets were on sale as well as dozens of different racing titles.  It was in an excellent position inside the main stand near one of the most-used routes to the paddock, and in front of a huge picture of Estimate, who won the Gold Cup for The Queen not so many years ago.

I was there from about 11 till 6.45 on Friday and 11.30 to 7.30 yesterday.  Ascot opened its doors to the public at 11 each day and stayed open a long time after racing, especially on Saturday when there was music afterwards.  That’s all potential book-selling time, hence the long days.  I had it easy compared to Rupert and his colleague Neil, who had to get all the stock inside and move their cars away to a designated area well before I arrived, and they couldn’t reverse the process at the end of the meeting until most racegoers had left, so I dread to think what time they got home.

From my catalogue (!) we were selling Salisbury, Fontwell and Windsor (reduced prices if buying two or three) and Croydon.  We sold 18 over the two days, so I was very pleased.

One sees very little of the actual racing when helping to man the bookstall.  At any moment someone might want to talk about one, buy one or have one signed.

On Saturday a couple of gigantic racing trophies were put on display next to our stall, and that helped bring browsers along too.  One book that caught the eye of quite a few racegoers was the Croydon book, which hasn’t been on public display for many, many years.  People were, not surprisingly, astonished that there had ever been a racecourse there.

I had ten fresh copies of it printed recently.  It’s 20 years since that was published, yet sales still occur from time to time and every couple of years or so I have to replenish the stock.  I’m getting very low on the other old ones and need to find out if the racecourses have any to spare.

While I was at the races on Friday a suggestion came from out of the blue about another racing history book I might write.  Even though I’ve been adamant that I want a rest from it after working on Salisbury and Ffos Las for the best part of three years, I find it difficult to say no.  I am getting in touch with the proposer to see if we can take the idea further.

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I only met John McCririck once, when he agreed to do some book-signing at Fontwell – not a course at which he was seen regularly.  We’d  already had the exceedingly successful launch, where Josh Gifford signed a hundred copies and remarked that he’d not written so much since his school days.  On a later occasion A P McCoy agreed to sign some.

McCririck was dressed in his familiar winter gear of tweeds, deerstalker and cigar.  I’m sure he completely baffled people who bought The History of Fontwell Park by scribbling a great long spidery screed on the title page that included something about Edwina Currie.  This was a few years after he appeared with her on the TV reality show Celebrity Wife Swap.  They didn’t hit it off.

People who didn’t want a book, but asked for their racecards or something else to be signed, were firmly rebuffed.  Yet anyone who wanted a photo taken with him was welcomed and he posed in his trademark wide-eyed open-mouthed style.  It was puzzlingly why one but not the other was acceptable.

I couldn’t find the Salisbury book in the Racing Post’s online Shop but I was reassured it was there, under New Titles, and it is also in the section called “Flat”.

Incidentally, when selling the book at Ascot a month or two ago a relatively new hardback “The Triumph of Henry Cecil” attracted a lot of interest from browsers.  Other racegoers who had already bought and read it commended it.  There have been other books about Cecil, but this one is the inside story about his revival from what had seemed a career-ending slump, with the glory of the Frankel years contrasting with his battle against cancer.

Now that Salisbury has been reviewed by the Post, I ought to send them Ffos Las.  I hope they treat it on its merits and don’t compare it with Salisbury, which has 400 years more history behind it.  I need to send copies of both to the British Library so that they will be there for posterity.

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My last post’s Option C has come true.  The printers of the Salisbury book have gone very quiet.  I know of no response to Jeremy’s email last Friday week, which pressed them for an updated quote for the job.  Perhaps they have replied and he hasn’t told me, but in that case I need to chase him.  Getting nowhere fast – behind schedule now – maybe we won’t make our launch date.

Domestic business means I haven’t done much on Ffos Las in the last few weeks.  I need only say the words “house selling” and “solicitors” to explain why.   Not that there is a huge amount to do on “the birth of a racecourse”.  There isn’t a lot more I can add to the text, although “text” is dignifying it somewhat.  It has a lot of rough edges.

The books are also compromised by the other work – writing articles and compiling statistics – that I am doing for various racecourses, which is subject to a series of deadlines every week.  It cannot, therefore, be put off.

It’s ironic that my interest in the past is now on the verge of being overtaken by my work on the present.  The latter, the more urgent, requires keeping up to date with current racing news, yet it has a short shelf-life (shades of the old cliché about yesterday’s newspapers being today’s chip wrappers).  Nevertheless the former will, I hope, have a rather longer existence, and I like to think my books will be of use to the next person who decides to write a history of Salisbury, or Fontwell or any of “my” other racecourses in 50 years’ time.  Or to the university student of the 23rd century, researching this remote period of ancient history, who may regard the very idea of a sport involving animals as positively medieval.

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I am doggedly indexing the Salisbury text now.  It’s amazing how many proper names (human and equine) there are on each page.  Not to mention race names and places.  Some can be quite a headache.  Gordon Richards is one example.  I suppose I should be consistent with my general practice of referring to people by their surnames, but “Richards” sounds so stuffy considering he was known so widely as “Gordon”.  Eventually he became Sir Gordon, but I haven’t got that far yet.

The nobility are also tiresome.  At any one time the senior member of the Pembroke family, which owns the land the racecourse is on, can be referred to as “Pembroke”, “the umpteenth Earl”, or “—- Herbert”, Herbert being the family’s surname.  With no regard for future indexers, the same Christian names tend to recur in different generations or centuries.

Worse still are common surnames.  You might have A Green being mentioned on a range of pages, but indexing in Word you can’t simply highlight Green and “Mark All” because B Green is in the story later and your don’t want the index to direct you to both A and B Green.  Not to mention extensions such as Greenham and Greenwood.  Still, it’s all on schedule.

It’s about this time of year that the Racing Post have in the past asked me to write a book review.  If the new Books Editor is reading this, hello.  I’d be happy to hear from you.

I spent a very pleasant afternoon at Fontwell earlier in the week.  We are now past the 10th anniversary of the book about the racecourse!  The happy combination of blue skies, no wind and a temperature that wasn’t too cold made it one of those days that prove winter isn’t all bad.

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Delusions of grandeur

I’ve completed another read-through of the Salisbury text – this must be the third re-read. I was on such a roll that I chose not to go to Sandown last week, when I had a cheap ticket.  I’ve made this latest version available to Jeremy, the Salisbury boss.   It has numerous corrections to the previous one (which he has had), but no significant changes.  I await his comments on either.  When they’ve been incorporated we should be close to a final version.

A few weeks ago we went through a list of all the available images, but now I’m going to suggest a near final list of those that could appear in the book.  Then we’ll go back to some press agencies to discuss costs.  I’m seeking advice on the anomaly of those images which more than one organisation claims to be the copyright holder.

My other work writing articles and ad hoc assignments takes up a fair amount of time and on one single day last week I had three requests for new “ad hocs”.  Two were done the next day but the other would be long-term if we can agree what’s wanted, deadlines and fees.  An unusual aspect of the ad hocs was my participation in a meeting to determine the winners of next week’s inaugural Welsh Horse Racing Awards.  Earlier this year, when I was first asked to work on this project, I fleetingly thought I was up for an award.  Dream on!

Today is the tenth anniversary of the Fontwell book launch, a wonderful day when I sat alongside Josh Gifford, who was signing copies, and my great friend Kim, a familiar figure to all the course regulars.  Between them they attracted over a hundred people to our stand to buy the book.  Josh said afterwards he’d never done so much handwriting since he was in school.

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Salisbury writing has continued, and I’m now touching on the 21st century.  Which is not to say it’s nearly finished; I’m referring to one source to make an outline of events, and I will go to others in due course to fill in the gaps.  And then I’ll go back to the very beginning and feel very dissatisfied with what I’ve done and make lots of changes.

One of the discoveries I made when researching the book is, I hope, going to be announced – I might say unveiled – before the first meeting of their season on 29 April.   More about that next time.

By going to Fontwell a fortnight ago I was breaking a seven-week racing-free drought.  That’s an almost unprecedented period for me to be absent from a racecourse in the last 20 years.  I blame winter.  The cool breeze that looked like it would mitigate the effect of the sunshine wore off during the afternoon and it became almost warm.  Not as warm as in the last three or four days, though.  One of the highlight’s was Simon Holt’s commentary of the last circuit of a three mile chase.  The duel between the two leaders was wonderfully conveyed – have a listen to it on the Attheraces website.

The last of the boxes of old Sporting Lifes that Simon gave me over a year ago remains in our conservatory.  Not only have no further inroads been made for the last three months or so, but it has been surrounded by a dozen or so other cardboard boxes of non-racing archives that I’ve had to look after on behalf of a charity I’m involved with.  Some of their contents will go to a proper archive, some will be put up for sale, some will be taken to the dump.   None of it as quickly as my wife would like!

I’ve been given a new book about the history of Worcester racecourse to review.  It’s by Chris Pitt, the author of A Long Time Gone, the definitive work on defunct courses of the 20th century, and Go Down To The Beaten, a collection of offbeat stories about horses that didn’t win the Grand National.  I fancy I could write the review without reading the book, but I will do the decent thing.  It (the review, that is) should with any luck be in print in the Racing Post on the Sunday after Worcester’s first meeting of the season, which is on 10 May.

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Looking at this blog’s WordPress stats yesterday I saw I had some views from Norway.  I wonder if that is my old correspondent S, who a few years ago was assiduously researching her family history, which overlapped with Binda Billsborough and the Days of Fontwell.

I’ve been making a few attempts to probe the gap between Binda’s pre-WW1 childhood in the East End and her emergence as a film star’s secretary in the 1930s. I tried looking at secretarial training colleges in central London, but there are so many listed in directories at the time and there are no records as far as I can tell.  There’s another possible person connected with Binda that I wanted to investigate, but when I went to my local library to use ancestry.com for free I found that thanks to their new computer system it wasn’t available and they didn’t know when it would be rectified.  I hope this is nothing to do with Carillion.

I went back to Chippenham the other day to take another look at a plan of Salisbury racecourse that I’d drawn a rough sketch of on my first visit there. Now it was desirable to get some photos of it to see if it threw any light on the great reinforced concrete stand conundrum.  I also had the joy of looking through some old City Council accounts.  This was in order to look for references to the City Bowl, a race that the local authority has supported since the 17th century.

A further close-up look at 1900s photos with a grandstand semi-obscured in the background still encourages me to think it’s the current Tatts stand. It’s frustrating that we can find no written evidence to verify it.

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I’ve finished going through a bulging folder labelled “History” that’s normally kept in the Salisbury racecourse office.  Borrowing it has allowed me to note, copy and scan its assorted contents.  Amongst the goodies there are photos from the 1930s onwards that could wind up in the book, copies of old racecards and newspaper articles, and a large photograph of a splendid 1802 painting, unfortunately spoiled by a big crease.  That could be a job for Photoshop.

Four years ago I bought a couple of Victorian photo albums owned by Binda Billsborough in the hope there’d be clues that would add to my knowledge of the Alfred Day family and help me complete the family tree.  To be frank, my study of the photos didn’t yield much to my benefit.  S, another researcher of the Days, showed some interest in them but nothing more came of it.  I’ve decided to let them go, and put them up for auction with Henry Adams of Chichester on 11 May.

I was pleased to bump into one of the Racing Post’s top features writers at Fontwell races the other day, a chap I’d met briefly a few times before.  He gave me some valuable pointers about interviewing people, writing to a deadline and the address of someone who may be able to contribute to the Salisbury book.

It looks like I may be getting a second regional newspaper column to ghost-write each week, and some other statistical work.  So, what with the reports I do already for two courses’ websites of their race meetings plus Salisbury research, the amount of time I spend on racing is increasing to the extent that I might have to rein back on actually going to the races!

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I’ve had a few more ad hoc enquiries from people doing their family or local history reserarch this month. One of them to do with Brighton was particularly satisfying.  The question was about a picture of a horse called Suspicion, ridden by Gordon Richards, after winning a race there.  They were trying to establish the date; was it the 1950s, perhaps?

A quick search indicated a definitive answer wasn’t going to be easily obtained, and I spent longer on it than I’d anticipated, having found this horse running at Brighton in 1936 aged eleven. Form books were then scrutinised in reverse order to reveal this mare had run about a dozen times every year over ten seasons, winning 25 races altogether.  Five of them were at Brighton with Richards on board, between 1931 and 1935.  I wound up sending details of all her wins to the enquirer, with my surmise that her owner was related to a family well-known in racing today.  They were very pleased to have so much information.

It made me wonder how many other forgotten favourites like Suspicion there must be; not top class horses, but popular for winning more than their share during their careers, their names now languishing undiscovered in the pages of dusty old books of racing results. My research helps me come across some relatively conspicuous course specialists like St Athans Lad and Certain Justice at Fontwell whose exploits were noticed in newspaper articles, but what about those old-timers whose victories were spread across a number of tracks, or who weren’t big names?  Suspicion won nine times at Brighton in all, but I never came across her when researching my book.

Over the last few years I’ve occasionally supplied a regional newspaper column with weekly racing articles, providing holiday cover for their normal author. Now I’ve been asked to supply them on a regular basis, which is very nice.  It was great when retirement meant I no longer had a string of day-to-day work deadlines to worry about any more, so is it perverse that I welcome having a new bit of routine like this?

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